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Archive for 31. Dezember 2019

Best Reads in 2019

Posted by hkarner - 31. Dezember 2019

Date: 30‑12‑2019

Source: Project Syndicate by PS EDITORS

Subject: PS Commentators‘ Best Reads in 2019

In addition to fictional explorations of identity and powerful works of oral history, this year’s list of not‑to‑miss books also includes a number of ambitious critiques of modern political economy and economics. With a new decade approaching, we are reminded that there are many ways to come to understand the world – none of which can claim priority over the others.

With a new year – and a new decade – approaching, Project Syndicate commentators list some of the books that had a lasting impact on their thinking in 2019. From engaging perspectives on economics and political science to groundbreaking novels and old tales of exploration, readers of all tastes should find something of interest in this year’s selections.


Siddhartha Mukherjee, The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer, Scribner, 2010.

It is hard to imagine that cancer could have anything to do with marketing, and yet Siddhartha Mukherjee of Columbia University shows us how it does. In one chapter, “A Moon Shot for Cancer,” he reveals how a few individuals successfully whipped up a national campaign to eradicate the disease, even though there were in fact no sure cures. For anyone seeking to understand public opinion and communications in American politics (and in democracies more broadly), this book is an essential – and fascinating – read.

Richard Stengel, Nelson Mandela: Portrait of an Extraordinary Man, Virgin Publishing, 2012.

In troubled times, it is reassuring to take lessons in life and leadership from the late South African political prisoner and president. The most powerful line in this book is: “The liberation struggle was not so much about liberating blacks from bondage; it was about liberating white people from fear.”

Graham Allison, Destined for War: Can America and China Escape Thucydides’s Trap?, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2017.

Graham Allison of Harvard University delivers – in masterful prose – a timely, clear‑eyed assessment of US‑China relations.


Eugen Ruge, Metropol, Rowohlt, 2019.

The complex currents of German history and the growing diversity of German society offer rich material for novels exploring the increasingly topical issue of identity. Eugen Ruge’s Metropol, along with the other books mentioned here, shows the unpredictable ways in which individual biographies can be changed by epochal events, chance, serendipity, and fortune.

Born in the Soviet Union in 1954, Ruge is the son of a German historian sent to Siberia under Stalin, and who later moved to East Germany. Following Ruge’s international best‑seller, In Times of Fading Light, a family saga about life in the former German Democratic Republic, Metropol takes readers back to the 1930s to tell the story of three young communists who moved to the Soviet Union to escape the Nazi regime, only to find themselves in the middle of Stalin’s Terror. Skillfully mixing facts and fiction, Ruge offers a fascinating account of three idealists who must navigate the small and arduous paths between conviction and knowledge, loyalty and obedience, and doubt and betrayal. How do you find yourself when all you believed in suddenly becomes uncertain, or even shown to be a lie?

Jackie Thomae, Brüder (Brothers), Hanser, 2019.

Unlike Ruge, Jackie Thomae was actually born in the German Democratic Republic. The daughter of mixed‑race parents, she is a child of the 1970s, a decade that many Germans remember as stable and hopeful. In Brüder, she tells a story of race, gender, and identity, and does so with a lightness and ease that is rare among German novelists. The plot follows a medical student who moves back to his native country, leaving behind a son in Berlin and another in Leipzig, each born to a different mother. Thomae’s account of these half‑brothers’ lives makes for a gripping narrative, as well as an efficient vehicle for a subtle exploration of the complexities of race and identity in contemporary Germany.

Saša Stanišic, Herkunft(Origin), Luchterhand Literaturverlag, 2019.

Born in 1978 in Yugoslavia to a Bosnian mother and a Serbian father, Saša Stanišic’s family fled to Germany to escape the Bosnian War. In Herkunft, which won the 2019 German Book Award, Stanišic transcends conventional genres, straddling autobiography, Bildungsroman, and essay with remarkable coherence. He keeps the reader engaged with a mix of humor, tragedy, and reflection, describing past and current events that shaped his identity and “place in the world.” And one would be remiss not to mention that Stanišic is an outspoken critic of Peter Handke – the recipient of this year’s Nobel Prize in Literature – for his role in supporting Slobodan Miloševic’s regime in the 1990s.


Viktor Jakupec and Max Kelly, Foreign Aid in the Age of Populism: Political Economy Analysis from Washington to Beijing, Routledge, 2019.

My two picks for 2019 critically assess the two dominant models of economic development in the twenty‑first century: the Washington Consensus and the Beijing Model. Foreign Aid in the Age of Populism provides insights into the political economy of aid from Washington to Beijing. It builds on the truism that the Western‑dominated model of international aid as a development paradigm for poor countries is being increasingly challenged by the emergence of non‑Western donors, the spread of illiberal democracy, and de‑globalization.

The continent receiving the most development aid today is Africa. But Jakupec and Kelly remind us that China and Africa were in an economic stalemate in the 1960s. While China followed its own development path, African countries subscribed to the neoliberal Washington Consensus. By the end of 2015, around half of African countries had failed to achieve the Millennium Development Goal of halving extreme poverty, whereas China experienced a sharp decline in extreme poverty over the past two decades, and is now a major source of aid to Africa.

Olayiwola Abegunrin and Charity Manyeruke, China’s Power in Africa: A New Global Order, Palgrave Macmillan, 2020.

In examining the dynamics underpinning Sino‑African relations, China’s Power in Africa is consistent with Foreign Aid in the Age of Populism in its description of an emerging new order that will leverage the Beijing Model’s strengths to correct for the Washington Consensus’s weaknesses. China is now Africa’s most significant trade partner and its leading source of funding for infrastructure development. Following a thorough assessment of China’s diplomatic, economic, and political engagement in Africa since the start of this century, Abegunrin and Manyeruke conclude that the rapidly growing Chinese role has been instrumental for the continent’s development.


Benedict Wells, The End of Loneliness, Penguin Random House, 2019.

The book that influenced me the most this year is not the usual non‑fiction that I read these days, but Benedict Wells’s The End of Loneliness. I picked it up absent‑mindedly, on the recommendation of a stranger at a bookstore in Hamburg Airport. It is a riveting tale of death, disappearance, and damaged lives. Yet through it all there is a certain luminosity of human warmth and caring that makes the book simultaneously one of sadness and hope. It is a great book to bring down the curtain on a dismal year. I count it among the finest works of fiction I have ever read.


Anand Giridharadas, Winners Take All: The Elite Charade of Changing the World, Knopf, 2018.

This is a sweeping scholarly critique of today’s global elites – the Davos crowd, the multi‑billionaires, the foundations created by former US presidents (particularly the Clinton Global Initiative) – whose efforts ostensibly to reform an unjust system end up obscuring their own roles in creating and sustaining it. The book also offers an educated critique of the socioeconomic disparities concomitant to the system, and exposes the immorality of a savage market economy that benefits a disconnected, insular elite. Giridharadas’s account helps to explain how a pied piper, Donald Trump, could reach the White House on the shoulders of the millions left behind by globalization. Looking ahead, it will be difficult to conduct a serious debate about the origins of today’s populist backlash without consulting this book.

Noam Zadoff, Gershom Scholem: From Berlin to Jerusalem and Back, Brandeis University Press, 2017.

Gershom Scholem was a German‑born Israeli scholar of Jewish mysticism – an academic field he practically founded – who split from prominent friends and colleagues like Hannah Arendt and Walter Benjamin by embracing Zionism and emigrating in the early 1920s to Palestine, where he helped to found the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. This biography describes Scholem’s extraordinary academic career, his early membership in Brit Shalom, an association of intellectuals that opposed the creation of a separate Jewish state, and his tense friendship with Arendt, which practically broke down with the publication in 1963 of her controversial book Eichmann in Jerusalem. The main novelty of Zadoff’s biography is its description of Scholem’s later disenchantment with Zionism and reconnection with his German intellectual roots. His is a story that reflects the existential dilemma faced by many other Jewish intellectuals of his generation.

Timothy Snyder, The Road to Unfreedom: Russia, Europe, America, Tim Duggan Books, 2018.

This is a history of the present with a keen eye on its origins in the past, a tour d’horizon of the politics of authoritarianism from Vladimir Putin’s Russia to Donald Trump’s United States. The book offers enlightening insights, particularly regarding Putin’s neo‑imperial policies, not least his Ukraine adventure and hybrid war against the West (including the successful manipulation of a US presidential election). As Snyder explains, a democratic West – particularly a democratic Europe – is a threat to Russia’s authoritarian system, just as the 1968 Prague Spring and Alexander Dubcek’s “socialism with a human face” posed a threat to Soviet communism. Back then, the Kremlin sent tanks; now, it relies on the tools of the digital age. Snyder analyzes the rise of Europe’s illiberal democrats and proto‑fascists and the Trump phenomenon to offer a comprehensive account of the crisis of democracy and the rise of authoritarian populism.


Evan Thomas, First: Sandra Day O’Connor, Random House, 2019.

I’ve always loved a good biography, Thomas’s First fills a void. Of course, I must confess to a personal bias behind this selection, as O’Connor has been a friend for over 30 years. In the space of six years, she earned a BA in economics at Stanford and a JD from its law school. Although she finished third in her class when she graduated in 1952, her only job offer was as a legal secretary. In recounting how she became the first woman to serve on the US Supreme Court, Thomas has brought us a great story of history‑altering talent, personal courage, and perseverance.

Lynne Olson, Madame Fourcade’s Secret War: The Daring Young Woman Who Led France’s Largest Spy Network Against Hitler, Random House, 2019.

In this hard‑to‑believe yet true story, Olson explains how 31‑year‑old Marie‑Madeleine Fourcade ended up leading the French Resistance’s most important intelligence ring during the Nazi occupation. Fourcade is a compelling example of how bravery and determination can overcome seemingly impossible odds under dangerous circumstances.


Barry Eichengreen, The Populist Temptation: Economic Grievance and Political Reaction in the Modern Era, Oxford University Press, 2018.

In one of the two best books that I read this year (though it actually came out last year), Eichengreen makes compelling historical sense out of today’s populist wave. But he inadvertently provides another invaluable service, for this book reminds us why economic history should be a required component of any undergraduate or graduate program in economics.

Raghuram G. Rajan, The Third Pillar: The Revival of Community in a Polarized World, HarperCollins, 2019.

Economies are made up of markets, states, and communities. In his new book, Rajan shows that community is the least studied but the most critical and vulnerable of these three components.


Emmanuel Saez and Gabriel Zucman, The Triumph of Injustice: How the Rich Dodge Taxes and How to Make Them Pay, W. W. Norton, 2019.

Even if you are a skeptic of wealth taxes and high‑income tax rates, Saez and Zucman will make you realize how unfair taxation has become. The share of profits that multinationals are booking in tax havens is just one of the many facts that will surprise you. This is a book with a mission: to elicit outrage. Mission accomplished for this reader.

Ottessa Moshfegh, My Year of Rest and Relaxation, Penguin Press, 2018.

The city that never sleeps can also be the city of seclusion. The New Yorker at the center of Moshfegh’s novel is someone you would never see, who nonetheless leads a life worth reading about.


Richard Davies, Extreme Economies: Survival, Failure, Future – Lessons from the World’s Limits, Bantam Press, 2019.

Davies offers an analysis of how economies work, or don’t, through vignettes of life in surprising places – from aging and shrinking small‑town Japan to America’s notorious Angola prison.

Stuart Russell, Human Compatible: Artificial Intelligence and the Problem of Control, Viking, 2019.

In this terrific, accessible guide to the history and capabilities of AI, Russell, a computer scientist, explains how we can ensure that these new technologies serve human purposes.



John Maynard Keynes, Essays in Persuasion, Palgrave Macmillan UK, 2010.

The following four books are, in my view, foundational. If you can think like these authors, you will be much better equipped to make sense of social science and public policy issues. In fact, someday, I plan to write a PS commentary – or several – exploring why these are the key thinkers for understanding the human societies of yesterday, today, and tomorrow.

The first is Essays in Persuasion, which offers a collection of insightful essays and articles written by Keynes between 1919 and 1931, intended for a general audience.

James C. Scott, Seeing Like a State: How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed, Yale University Press, 1999.

Scott, a political scientist at Yale, analyzes failed cases of large‑scale authoritarian plans in a variety of fields, in order to determine why well‑intentioned strategies for improving the human condition go so tragically awry.

Karl Polanyi, The Great Transformation: The Political and Economic Origins of Our Time, Beacon Press, 2001.

In this classic 1944 work of economic history and social theory, Polanyi analyzes the tectonic shifts in human relations and governance brought about by the Industrial Revolution.

Charles Kindleberger, Manias, Panics, and Crashes: A History of Financial Crises (Seventh Edition), Palgrave Macmillan, 2015.

The renowned economic historian shows how the mismanagement of money and credit has produced financial upheaval over the centuries.


Branko Milanovic, Capitalism, Alone: The Future of the System That Rules the World, Harvard University Press, 2019.

It is telling that the quotes preceding each chapter in economist Milanovic’s new book are from storied figures such as Plato, Aristotle, Adam Smith, and Karl Marx. Milanovic has written an extraordinarily informed overview of the contemporary world economy, with insights firmly grounded in history, philosophy, and political science, not to mention his own empirical research conducted over the past few decades.

Milanovic focuses on one of the great geostrategic challenges of our time. Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, capitalism has emerged as the hegemonic economic system, but “political capitalism” has posed an unprecedented challenge to liberalism. The future is now open. Whether liberal capitalism survives will depend on whether it can evolve in such a way as to reduce inequality, expand ownership, and strengthen social insurance. Otherwise, Milanovic warns, liberal and political capitalism may converge into a system where economic and political power are concentrated in the hands of a plutocratic elite. There is no historical determinism here. But there is a great deal for policymakers and politicians to think about.

Robert J. Shiller, Narrative Economics: How Stories Go Viral and Drive Major Economic Events, Princeton University Press, 2019.

Building on his life‑long work, Nobel laureate economist Shiller’s latest book explains how “stories” in the form of contagious narratives shape economic behavior, and are in turn influenced by it. This book alone should be enough to convince readers that assumptions about “given” preferences and “rational” utility‑maximizing actors are totally inadequate for predicting economic and social events. Shiller does not mince his words when driving this point home. One‑year‑ahead macroeconomic forecasts, he shows, are “on the whole worthless.” And in a particularly fascinating appendix, he draws parallels between epidemiology and economics to describe how narratives spread like diseases.

Abhijit V. Banerjee and Esther Duflo,Good Economics for Hard Times, Public Affairs, 2019.

Along with Michael Kremer, the third recipient of this year’s Nobel Memorial Prize in Economics, Banerjee and Duflo are now famous for having popularized the use of randomized controlled trials (RCTs) in development economics. In their new book, they place that methodology in a much wider context, and argue that many economic narratives do not stand up to rigorous empirical scrutiny (though they would not disagree with Shiller that such narratives can be highly influential). There are no new theories or grand narratives to be found here; what Banerjee and Duflo offer are many valuable recommendations for social policies in specific contexts. Though their approach is very different from Shiller’s, I found similarities between their book and his. At the heart of both is a focus on human behavior, which is shaped in much more complex ways than can be captured by what economist Kenneth Boulding (as quoted by Shiller) called the “immaculate conception of the indifference curve.”

Ishac Diwan, Adeel Malik, Izak Atiyas (Editors), Crony Capitalism in the Middle East: Business and Politics from Liberalization to the Arab Spring, Oxford University Press, 2019.

This excellent book looks at “crony capitalism” in the Middle East, but its analysis applies globally. The editors show how “private‑public insider connections” in many countries lead to large material gains for both types of actor. Every chapter is packed with useful facts, and most contain some formal statistical analysis, too. The book’s descriptions of individual countries are highly edifying on their own. But the typologies developed are also useful for thinking about “crony capitalism” more generally. It turns out that insider connections can be a key feature of both “liberal” and “political” capitalism (as defined by Milanovic). In either case, the merging of political and economic power forms the foundation for full‑bore cronyism.


George Packer, Our Man: Richard Holbrooke and the End of the American Century, Knopf, 2019.

Journalist George Packer’s new book is a wonderfully told biography of one of the most brilliant and complicated figures in US diplomacy in the last century.

Benjamin Carter Hett, The Death of Democracy: Hitler’s Rise to Power and the Downfall of the Weimar Republic, St. Martin’s Griffin, 2019.

I’ve read a lot of books about Hitler’s rise, but Hett is more granular than most, without ever becoming ponderous.

Sarfraz Manzoor, Greetings from Bury Park, Vintage, 2008.

This is an honest, affecting account of a young Pakistani émigré in a London suburb inhabited by his parents and other immigrants from their country. Manzoor’s memoir explains how he dealt with the conflicts such a life presented, and found his way into the wider world, thanks to Bruce Springsteen.


Richard J. Evans, Eric Hobsbawm: A Life in History, Little Brown, 2019.

In Evans’s biography of Eric Hobsbawm, the great historian of the modern economy, one learns how scholarship on the Industrial Revolution, globalization, and imperialism evolved over the course of the twentieth century. And along the way, one also gets a close look at Hobsbawm’s remarkable personal and intellectual journey.

Sheri Berman, Democracy and Dictatorship in Europe: From the Ancien Régime to the Present Day, Oxford University Press, 2019.

Berman has written a magisterial survey of Europe’s modern political development. The book is necessarily a study of economic as well as political history.

Chris Miller, The Struggle to Save the Soviet Economy: Mikhail Gorbachev and the Collapse of the USSR, University of North Carolina Press, 2016.

Miller’s analysis of the Soviet economy is deeply grounded in archival material, but his overall account of the system in its death throes is short and accessible.


Paul Collier, The Future of Capitalism: Facing the New Anxieties, HarperCollins, 2018.

Economists have recently taken to writing big‑picture books that offer important perspectives on their profession. These include Rajan’s The Third Pillar (listed above) and Oxford University economist Collier’s The Future of Capitalism. Both books challenge the fundamental behavioral assumption of neoclassical economics – which holds that people are self‑interested rational utility‑maximizers – and argue that human beings have powerful social inclinations. Each book then seeks to incorporate this insight into a broader economic model in which markets serve communal as well as individual needs.

Thomas Philippon, The Great Reversal: How America Gave Up on Free Markets, Harvard University Press, 2019.

Like Milanovic’s Capitalism, Alone (listed above), French economist Philippon’s The Great Reversal addresses the rapid rise of inequality in developed economies. To explain the trend, Philippon points specifically to corporate concentration in the US, which, with the help of rent‑seeking lobbyists, has left prices in America higher than those in Europe.


Katharina Pistor, The Code of Capital: How the Law Creates Wealth and Inequality, Princeton University Press, 2019.

In possibly one of the most important non‑fiction books of the decade, Pistor shines a clear and sharp light on how legal codes – increasingly determined in private law offices in New York and London – shape the contours of economic activity, ownership, and control under contemporary global capitalism.

Joseph Henrich, The Secret of Our Success: How Culture Is Driving Human Evolution, Domesticating Our Species, and Making Us Smarter, Princeton University Press, 2018.

Henrich, a Harvard University biologist, has written a mind‑opening book about how culture interacts with biology and technology in an evolutionary process. Along the way, he shows why collective intelligence and the ability to share knowledge makes humans both unique and more “successful” than other species.

Carl Benedikt Frey, The Technology Trap: Capital, Labor, and Power in the Age of Automation, Princeton University Press, 2019.

Frey provides a longue durée examination of the economic, social, and political interplay that drives technological change. Careful, erudite, elegantly written, and full of insight, the book sets the current overwrought debate about automation and AI on a firm contextualized footing.

Manu S. Pillai, The Courtesan, the Mahatma and the Italian Brahmin: Tales from Indian History, Context Chennai, 2019.

In this collection of delightfully informative and witty essays, Pillai finds in history a balm to help alleviate the burdens of the present.

Pablo Neruda (translated by Forrest Gander), Then Come Back: The Lost Neruda Poems, Bloodaxe Books, 2017.

In his introduction to this translation of poetry by Neruda, the twentieth‑century Chilean Nobel Prize winner Gander contends that the painstakingly recovered poems contained within “are a testament to the inexhaustible nature of this poet.” Indeed, they are – not only because they demonstrate Neruda’s inimitable style, but also because they make you reach back for those other much‑loved volumes of his work.


Steven Pinker, Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress, Viking, 2018.

We all need optimism in these turbulent times, and in this best‑selling book from last year, Harvard University psychologist Pinker marshals the data to show that the state of human civilization is not as bad as it seems. What could be better than optimism? Evidence‑based optimism!

Serhii Plokhy, Chernobyl: History of a Tragedy, Penguin, 2019.

HBO’s excellent and successful series Chernobyl eclipsed this newly published masterpiece by Plokhy of Harvard University. As the chairman of the jury for the London‑based Pushkin House Book Prize this year, I was very happy that we gave the award to Plokhy’s extremely well‑researched and detailed story of the disaster.


Michael Beschloss, Presidents of War: The Epic Story, from 1807 to Modern Times, Crown, 2018.

Beschloss’s latest book is a well‑written, historically informed take on the evolution – that is, the expansion – of American presidents’ war‑making power over time.

Jill Lepore, These Truths: A History of the United States, W. W. Norton, 2018.

In just one volume, Harvard University historian Lepore provides a powerful political interpretation of American history since the founding.


Behrouz Boochani (translated by Omid Tofighian), No Friend but the Mountains: The True Story of an Illegally Imprisoned Refugee, Picador, 2019.

A powerful mix of humanity and imagination written by a Kurdish‑Iranian refugee trapped on Australia’s Manus Island. Boochani was so cut off from the world that his manuscript was delivered for publication through mobile phone text messages over a five‑year period.

William Dalrymple, The Anarchy: The Relentless Rise of the East India Company,Bloomsbury, 2019.

An insightful and in‑depth account of the British conquest of India steered not by a sinister government bent on empire, but by the unregulated, private East India Company from its small head office in the City of London.

Mehrzad Boroujerdi and Kourosh Rahimkhani, Postrevolutionary Iran: A Political Handbook, Syracuse University Press, 2018.

An indispensable evidence‑based reference for anyone with a serious interest in comprehending the ruling clique running Iran since the 1979 Revolution beyond day‑to‑day headlines.


Svetlana Alexievich (translated by Keith Gessen), Voices from Chernobyl: The Oral History of a Nuclear Disaster, Dalkey Archive Press, 2019.

Chernobyl returned to our consciousness this year. Now that climate concerns are growing amid all sorts of human mismanagement, books that address this earlier calamity – an event that Alexievich, the winner of the 2015 Nobel Prize in Literature, called “a chronicle of the future” – should be on everyone’s reading list. Though it first appeared in English in 2005 with the title Chernobyl Prayer: A Chronicle of the Future (an exact translation from the Russian), a newer edition, translated by journalist Keith Gessen, was released in paperback this year. Alexievich was the first author to humanize the Chernobyl tragedy. The victims, she warned, may have been among the first people to experience such a catastrophe; but they would not be the last.

Adam Higginbotham, Midnight in Chernobyl: The Untold Story of the World’s Greatest Nuclear Disaster, Simon & Schuster, 2019.

Higginbotham’s book on the catastrophe deserves almost as much attention as Alexievich’s. Midnight in Chernobyl is deeply researched and meticulously narrated, offering a captivating account that captures the continuing threat of such man‑made disasters. In Higginbotham’s telling, the details of an event that hastened the demise of the Soviet Union unfold in rapid, terrifying succession. The book recounts the heroism of the reactor operators, the struggle to contain the meltdown, and the confused, inadequate response from Moscow, ultimately leaving readers with a sense of foreboding.

Patrick Radden Keefe,Say Nothing: A True Story of Murder and Memory in Northern Ireland, Doubleday, 2019.

Say Nothing recounts the heartbreaking story of The Troubles in Northern Ireland in the 1970s. Keefe, a staff writer at The New Yorker, delivers a masterful treatment of the violence and dread that consumed Ireland for decades. The horrors and devastation of war, and the futility of sectarian conflict, emerge as highly relevant themes now that Great Britain is poised to leave the European Union. The debate over the post‑Brexit Irish border could now become a test of whether The Troubles are really over.


Paul Blustein, Schism: China, America, and the Fracturing of the Global Trading System, Center for International Governance Innovation, 2019.

Blustein, a senior fellow at CIGI, describes the contentious process leading up to China’s accession to the WTO, and the reforms that followed, showing how these developments transformed the global trading system – and led to the US‑China trade war.

Douglas A. Irwin, Free Trade Under Fire (Fourth Edition), Princeton University Press, 2015.

At a time when free trade is under attack, Irwin, a professor at Dartmouth College, clears up common misconceptions that are muddying the discussion.


Vincent H. Smith, Joseph W. Glauber, and Barry K. Goodwin (Editors), Agricultural Policy in Disarray, American Enterprise Institute, 2018.

This two‑volume work by three AEI scholars shows how rent‑seeking by small, well‑organized interest groups in the US has resulted in agricultural policies that do much more harm than good.


Ian McEwan, Machines Like Me, Jonathan Cape, 2019.

Through the story of a love triangle between a man, a woman, and a robot, McEwan’s new novel explores the challenges posed by AI and comments more broadly on the cost of progress.

Daniel Kehlmann, Tyll, Rowohlt, 2017.

Austrian novelist Kehlmann’s latest work places Tyll Ulenspiegel, a recurring character in German literature that dates to the early sixteenth century, in the context of the Thirty Years’ War.


Margaret O’Mara, The Code: Silicon Valley and the Remaking of America, Penguin Press, 2019.

hat I love about O’Mara’s new book is that it reveals how long it took for Silicon Valley to become the engine of innovation growth that it is today – and how deliberate that project was. Its roots go back to the 1930s‑1950s, well before Microsoft and Apple were founded (in 1975 and 1976, respectively).

Daniel H. Pink, When: The Scientific Secrets of Perfect Timing, Riverhead Books, 2018.

Pink provides wonderful insights into how outcomes are affected not only by what we do, but also by when we do it – that is, the timing of our decisions.

Eric Schmidt, Jonathan Rosenberg, and Alan Eagle, Trillion Dollar Coach: The Leadership Playbook of Silicon Valley’s Bill Campbell, Harper Business, 2019.

Bill Campbell was a mentor and coach to the biggest names in modern technology, including Steve Jobs and Google founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin. This book reveals how he deftly managed highly driven innovators who have defined an age.


William J. Burns, The Back Channel: A Memoir of American Diplomacy and the Case for Its Renewal, Random House, 2019.

Burns spent three decades in the US Foreign Service, rising to become Deputy Secretary of State. His account of American foreign policy from Presidents Ronald Reagan to Donald Trump is both even‑handed and self‑critical. It is also an eloquent plea for the importance of diplomacy. In his words, “lulled by post‑Cold War dominance and then by 9/11, we gradually devalued diplomatic tools. All too often we over‑relied on American hard power to achieve policy aims and ambitions, hastening the end of American dominance.”

Like his fellow Foreign Service officers who testified at the recent House of Representatives impeachment hearings, Burns’s balanced account provides an important civics lesson in service to the national interest, rather than to partisan or personal objectives. Having spent 2019 writing my own book, Do Morals Matter? Presidents and Foreign Policy from FDR to Trump, I was ready to criticize Burns’s account of the same period. But I found myself largely in agreement with his very readable history and the judgments he draws from it.

Susan Rice, Tough Love: My Story of the Things Worth Fighting For, Simon & Schuster, 2019.

As the impeachment proceedings against Trump have played out, many comparisons have been made to his predecessor. Susan Rice was Barack Obama’s National Security Adviser and US ambassador to the United Nations, and an assistant secretary of state under President Bill Clinton. Rice does not pretend to impartiality, but she is willing to criticize herself and Obama’s foreign policy. “We fell short of achieving several important objectives,” she writes. The administration was unable to resolve the conflict in Syria, stabilize Libya, broker Israeli‑Palestinian peace, or eliminate North Korea’s nuclear and missile program.

But while Rice describes mistakes, she leaves no doubt about Obama’s integrity as he pursued what he saw as the national interest. She is discreet in her accounts of politics in the Obama administration, but wonderfully frank about the travails of a young African‑American woman whose parents split while she was growing up in Washington, DC. The autobiographical dimension makes the book an engaging personal memoir, in addition to a valuable contribution to history.


Frank Arthur Worsley, Shackleton’s Boat Journey, W. W. Norton, 1976 (reissued 1998).

I enjoyed this account of Sir Ernest Shackleton’s disastrous fourth expedition to the Antarctic in 1921 primarily because I had the remarkable pleasure of visiting that continent myself in late 2018. While there, I came to understand the attraction of that harsh yet wonderful place. What Shackleton and his crew went through in 1914‑1916, as described by Worsley, a navigator, in his first‑hand account, is truly astonishing.

Gregory Zuckerman, The Man Who Solved the Market: How Jim Simons Launched the Quant Revolution, Portfolio, 2019.

Zuckerman, a journalist at the Wall Street Journal, has produced such a breezy read that I finished it in two days. Zuckerman recounts the remarkable career of mathematician Jim Simons, one of the best‑performing hedge‑fund managers of my generation. Informed readers will enjoy a trip down memory lane, encountering some of the major incidents and issues surrounding the rise of algorithm‑driven investing.

Geoff Burrell, Buster’s Fired a Wobbler: A Week in a Psychiatric Hospital, Penguin, 1989 (reissued 2019).

Originally published in 1989, this account of life in a psychiatric hospital by someone who once worked in one was republished this year as an e‑book. The author, a dear friend of mine from our university days, is not only a wonderful bloke; he is also colorful character and a gifted storyteller.


Karina Sainz Borgo (translated by Elizabeth Bryer), It Would be Night in Caracas (La Hija de la Española), HarperVia/Lumen, 2019.

Venezuela’s suffering has gone on for so long and sunk to such depths that it can sometimes feel almost abstract. This astonishing debut novel takes the reader on a deeply unsettling but supremely enlightening personal journey through Venezuela’s disintegration. Seen through the eyes of a young woman whose future is overtaken by a fight for survival, Sainz Borgo’s novel shows how a system can propel one’s life into a spiral of chaos and vileness. It is a book that both informs the reader’s perspective on Venezuela and provokes a deeper reflection on human experience. Although it has already been translated into numerous languages, only the original Spanish can convey a unique prose style in the tradition of Cervantes.


Frank Pasquale, The Black Box Society: The Secret Algorithms that Control Money and Information, Harvard University Press, 2016.

This book by Pasquale of the University of Maryland covers similar ground as Shoshana Zuboff’s more recent book The Age of Surveillance Capitalism (listed below), but is much more granular and pays more attention to the legal underpinnings of the digital algorithms that control money and information.

Bernard Lietaer and Jacqui Dunne, Rethinking Money: How New Currencies Turn Scarcity into Prosperity, Berrett‑Koehler, 2013.

Lietaer, an economist, and Dunne, a journalist, have written an inspiring book about how to design more inclusive and resilient money and payment systems. Instead of simply digitizing the existing system (central‑bank digital currencies) or privatizing it (through Libra), we could draw lessons from cooperative payment systems and use technology to scale them.

Tobias Straumann, 1931: Debt, Crisis, and the Rise of Hitler, Oxford University Press, 2019.

Straumann’s book serves as a stark reminder of the political dimension of debt. I love history, and, as a German national, I was taught early on the importance of studying it, not because it will necessarily repeat itself, but rather because it holds lessons that are critical to understanding the present.


Jason Brennan, Against Democracy, Princeton University Press, 2017.

Brennan, a political philosopher at Georgetown University, has delivered a compelling challenge to the morality of democracy. Reading this book now feels like shutting the stable door after the horse has bolted. But it nonetheless provides guidance for restoring moderation to the politics of Western democracy.

Stuart Turton, The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle, Raven Books, 2018.

From a less political perspective, Turton’s novel is a fascinating Agatha Christie‑esque whodunnit. Infusing classic pastoral tropes with time‑turning elements, it represents a mesmerizing reinvention of the genre.


Shoshana Zuboff, The Age of Surveillance Capitalism: The Fight for a Human Future at the New Frontier of Power, Public Affairs, 2019.

It turns out that the machine is even smarter than Harvard’s Zuboff originally thought when she pondered this subject more than three decades ago in In The Age of the Smart Machine (Basic Books, 1988). Breakthroughs in artificial intelligence, in conjunction with ruthless Big Tech business models that aggressively monetize personal privacy, shine a bright light on the dim virtues of a new capitalism.

In its rush to condemn Chinese surveillance for its egregious violation of human rights, the US has lost sight of an even more insidious strain of surveillance. Press reports suggest that the world will have one billion security cameras by the end of 2021, with more than half in China. By comparison, there are over 3.5 billion Google searches per day, and over 2.4 billion Facebook users. By Zuboff’s reckoning, the combination of Google, Facebook, and Amazon make George Orwell’s Big Brother look like child’s play. Her book is a must‑read in the seemingly fruitless search for heroes in this brave new world.


Alberto Alesina, Carlos Favero, and Francesco Giavazzi, Austerity: When it Works and When it Doesn’t, Princeton University Press, 2019.

Alesina, Favero, and Giavazzi marshal a massive amount of evidence to show that in cases when circumstances have forced a country into fiscal retrenchment (owing to bad luck, fiscal excesses, or fickle markets), cutting government spending has cost less than raising taxes in terms of foregone output and employment. The book is a towering scholarly achievement. The culmination of decades of research, it is destined to serve as a touchstone for future studies – both by those who will build on it and by those who will try to tear it down.

Ganesh Sitaraman and Anne L. Alstott,The Public Option: How to Expand Freedom, Increase Opportunity, and Promote Equality, Harvard University Press, 2019.

Sitaraman and Alstott, law professors at Vanderbilt and Yale, respectively, have produced an ambitious attempt to rethink areas where the state can potentially play a larger role in the economy, from banking to childcare to higher education. Some of the ideas may seem rather implausible to most economists. But if trends in inequality continue, one must consider the extent to which governments should go in increasing transfers as opposed to providing a wider range of services. One may not agree with all of the authors’ suggestions, but even skeptical readers will encounter many powerful arguments that might not have occurred to them previously.


Erich Maria Remarque, Schatten im Paradies (Shadows in Paradise), KiWi‑Taschenbuch, 1971.

Shadows in Paradise (Schatten im Paradies) is the final novel by Remarque, the author of All Quiet on the Western Front and Marlene Dietrich’s lover. Remarque was stripped of German citizenship for his pacifism by the Nazis who executed his younger sister. This brilliant novel tells of a number of refugees’ flights from occupied Europe during the war, and their lives in New York. Describing Nazi barbarism from the safety of America strangely makes it more immediate and more real. A grave warning for our times.


David Wallace‑Wells, The Uninhabitable Earth: Life After Warming, Tim Duggan Books, 2019.

Climate change is the existential threat of our time. This book by Wallace‑Wells, a writer at New York Magazine, assembles the science on the vast array of consequences of global warming – food shortages, refugee emergencies, resource conflict, and economic devastation – in a way that drives home the true urgency of the problem.

Annette Gordon‑Reed, The Hemingses of Monticello: An American Family, W. W. Norton, 2008.

A decade after recounting Thomas Jefferson’s relationship with his slave Sally Hemings, Annette Gordon‑Reed of Harvard Law School wrote the story of the family that resulted from that relationship. The book is a reckoning, especially for someone like me, who grew up in Charlottesville, Virginia, where Jefferson‑worship is a way of life. Equally important, it is an account of an American family, just as American as Jefferson’s “official” white family. It reminds us that the history of all Americans – regardless of race, class, and legal status – is American history.


Paul Wilson, Hostile Money: Currencies in Conflict, The History Press, 2019.

I am intrigued by the numerous links between money, power, and conflict, but I am also frustrated by how the topic is typically treated – mainly by international‑relations specialists, because economists generally steer clear of it. This well‑researched book, which includes both historical examples and contemporary evidence, avoids those pitfalls, while offering a fresh perspective on some important dynamics.

Antonio Scurati, M. Il figlio del secolo, Bompiani, 2018.

Soon to be published in English by HarperCollins, this book – which became a fixture on Italian best‑seller lists after its publication last year, despite its 839‑page heft – tells the story of Benito Mussolini. After resisting the trend for a long time, I recently followed some trusted advice and bought it. I cannot put it down. The story is compelling, especially the section on the interwar period, though one wonders – returning to a dilemma Shiller raises in Narrative Economics – whether it is history or narrative.


Larry Diamond, Ill Winds: Saving Democracy from Russian Rage, Chinese Ambition, and American Complacency, Penguin Press, 2019.

Until recently, we had learned to take democracy for granted. Diamond, a political scientist at the Hoover Institution, argues that democracy is now in a recession. It is endangered not only on the fringes, but also at its core. Even in established democracies like the US, one must be vigilant. Democracy is a virtue, but it not inevitable.

Robert Kagan, The Jungle Grows Back: America and Our Imperiled World, Knopf, 2018.

I quoted Kagan frequently during my mandate this fall as the president of the European Council. He emphasizes that the liberal world order represents only a short period in history, and argues that if we want to keep it, we must take care of its institutions as if they were part of a precious garden. Otherwise, “the jungle grows back” – a process that is already underway.


Nathan Gardels and Nicolas Berggruen, Renovating Democracy: Governing in the Age of Globalization and Digital Capitalism, University of California Press, 2019.

Gardels and Berggruen offer thoughtful, forward‑looking proposals to restore deliberative democracy and inclusive growth in the US.

Kai‑Fu Lee, AI Superpowers: China, Silicon Valley, and the New World Order, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2018.

This is an insightful analysis of the effects of artificial intelligence on work, and on the Sino‑American competition for technological dominance, by one of the world’s leading AI visionaries and investors.

Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt, How Democracies Die, Crown, 2018.

Two Harvard University professors offer a sobering analysis of how democratically elected leaders can undermine the democratic process to increase their power, with disturbing implications for the US and the UK.

Erik Tarloff, The Woman in Black, Rare Bird Books, 2019.

This highly original mystery novel is impossible to put down as it follows an enigmatic and charismatic protagonist through 1950s Hollywood.


Rise of the Nazis, BBC television series, 2019.

At a time when minority rights and constitutional protections are under attack in so many places, it is crucial to understand how a government with constitutional rules and functioning courts could fall.

Bryan Stevenson, Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption, Spiegel and Grau, 2014.

Stevenson, the founder of the Equal Justice Initiative in Montgomery, Alabama, offers insight into what it takes for societies to create and apply laws fairly. This book, the basis for a new film starring Michael B. Jordan and Jamie Foxx, is a must‑read for every American policymaker, lawyer, judge, and police officer, but the issues it addresses are universal.

Jonathan Haidt, The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion, Pantheon, 2012.

At a deeply polarized time, Haidt, a social psychologist at New York University, helps us to understand those in our community with whom we strongly disagree.

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The Economic Cost of Devaluing “Women’s Work”

Posted by hkarner - 31. Dezember 2019

Kristalina Georgieva, Cristian Alonso, Era Dabla-Norris, and Kalpana Kochhar

As much as half of the world’s work is unpaid.  And most of it is done by women.

This imbalance not only robs women of economic opportunities. It is also costly to society in the form of lower productivity and forgone economic growth. It follows that a fairer allocation of unpaid work would not only benefit women, but would also lead to more efficient work forces and stronger economies.

For these reasons, reducing gender imbalances in unpaid work is part of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals.

Examples of unpaid work include cooking, cleaning, fetching food or water, and caring for children and the elderly.  These tasks are not counted as part of economic activity because they are difficult to measure based on values in the marketplace. Yet their economic value is substantial, with estimates ranging from 10 to 60 percent of GDP.

In our new study, we find that unpaid work declines as economic development increases particularly because there is less time spent on domestic chores. Social institutions and values can constrain the redistribution of unpaid work by preventing men from sharing the burden at home.

Unpaid work declines as economic development increases.

Overworked and underpaid Den Rest des Beitrags lesen »

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Will Recession Strike in 2020?

Posted by hkarner - 31. Dezember 2019

Date: 31‑12‑2019

Source: The Wall Street Journal By Burton G. Malkiel and Atanu Saha

Even the best indicators of downturns are unreliable, but investors can take steps to prepare either way.

Year‑end is the traditional time to forecast the economy and ensure that your investment portfolio can handle future shocks. Habitual worrywarts—including some practitioners of the dismal science—see ominous signs that America’s record‑breaking expansion will soon end. Meanwhile, most stock‑market pundits see recent strong consumer spending as a good omen, signifying that stocks and the economy will continue to rise. Let’s review the best indicators to make sense of the picture.

The Conference Board, a nonprofit for economic research, tracks 11 predictive measures of future economic activity in its Index of Leading Economic Indicators. The LEI purports to forecast the economy over the coming three to six months. The individual components include data on unemployment, the direction of the stock market, consumer and business sentiment, and manufacturing activity. Unfortunately, the LEI is somewhat unreliable as a forecaster and often misleading.

We examined the record of the LEI (and its components) over the eight recessions and nine sudden market declines of 15% or more since 1960. The good news is that the LEI and many of its components have had a near‑perfect record in anticipating recessions. The most reliable indicators have been the shape of the yield curve, business and consumer confidence, durable‑good purchases and housing starts, and the health of the labor market. These measures have also correctly signaled stock‑market downturns. (The biggest exception is consumer spending, which has risen before nearly every past recessions, falling only after the recession starts.) Den Rest des Beitrags lesen »

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Making the Best of a Bad Brexit

Posted by hkarner - 31. Dezember 2019

Willem H. Buiter

Willem H. Buiter, a former chief economist at Citigroup, is an adjunct professor at Columbia University.

The United Kingdom has avoided the disaster of Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn’s radical socialism, but remains on track for a long grind through and after the post-Brexit transition period. Negotiating a new trade relationship with the European Union – not to mention the wider world – will take years.

NEW YORK – The United Kingdom’s general election this month not only settled the question of Brexit, but also put paid to Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn’s extreme vision of socialism. Corbyn’s electoral demise comes as a relief to all who reject the Venezuelan economic model: if it moves, regulate it; if it still moves, tax it; and if it’s still twitching after that, nationalize it. The UK has been spared a very costly five-year diversion. It is little wonder that markets heaved a sigh of relief following the Tories’ overwhelming victory.

To be sure, Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s economic-policy program is also far removed from the pro-market, small-government tradition of Margaret Thatcher. His government will spend more, tax more, and pursue some populist-style interventions in markets and industries. Still, its approach will be nowhere near as radical as what Corbyn proposed.Johnson now must carry out the Brexit that he has long championed. Den Rest des Beitrags lesen »

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Keynes was wrong. Gen Z will have it worse.

Posted by hkarner - 31. Dezember 2019

Date: 27‑12‑2019

Source: Technology Review by Malcolm Harris

Instead of never‑ending progress, today’s kids face a world on the edge of collapse. What next?

The founder of macroeconomics predicted that capitalism would last for approximately 450 years. That’s the length of time between 1580, when Queen Elizabeth invested Spanish gold stolen by Francis Drake, and 2030, the year by which John Maynard Keynes assumed humanity would have solved the problem of our needs and moved on to higher concerns.

It’s true that today the system seems on the edge of transformation, but not in the way Keynes hoped. Gen Z’s fate was supposed to be to relax into a life of leisure and creativity. Instead it is bracing for stagnant wages and ecological crisis.

In a famous essay from the early 1930s called “Economic Possibilities for Our Grandchildren,” Keynes imagined the world 100 years in the future. He spotted phenomena like job automation (which he called “technological unemployment”) coming, but those changes, he believed, augured progress: progress toward a better society, progress toward collective liberation from work. He was worried that the transition to this world without toil might be psychologically difficult, and so he suggested that three‑hour workdays could serve as a transitional program, allowing us to put off the profound question of what to do when there’s nothing left to do.

Well, we know the grandchildren in the title of Keynes’s essay: they’re the kids and younger adults of today. The prime‑age workforce of 2030 was born between 1976 and 2005. And though the precise predictions he made about the rate of economic growth and accumulation were strikingly accurate, what they mean for this generation is very different from what he imagined. Den Rest des Beitrags lesen »

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